Richard Sandoval grew up around food.
"At a very young age, my palate was already being exposed to things that most kids don?t ever get exposed to," he said.
Sandoval has fond memories of sitting as a kid atop a counter, watching cooks at his grandparents' home chopping, mixing and stirring ingredients for Latin dishes. His grandfather, a banker in Mexico City, threw extravagant dinner parties with exotic foods, like cheeses and butters from Europe, and flavors that made an impression on the young Sandoval.
He also vividly remembers big weekend gatherings where everyone ate family-style. "It's funny ? how restaurants have evolved and gone back to our roots (with) small plates and sharing," he said. "Everybody thinks it's such a novelty, but in reality, it's something we've been doing for the last hundred years in our culture."
Sandoval, CEO and president of Richard Sandoval Restaurants, has opened more than 30 restaurants across the world, including establishments in Mexico, Dubai and Qatar. He also opened several restaurants in partnership with opera star Placido Domingo, the first being Pampano in New York City in 2003. One of Sandoval's most recent projects is Toro Toro in the InterContinental Miami hotel in Florida. Toro Toro offers a menu consisting of South and Central American dishes. The restaurant cost an estimated $4 million to finance. Sandoval said opening a restaurant generally costs anywhere from $200,000 to $10 million. He note that the recession slowed the establishment of U.S. high-end restaurants. "Our industry was down; check averages were down; you couldn't open any high-end, very luxurious restaurants," he said.
"In the last five years," he explained, "we were building restaurants probably in the range of $700,000 to $800,000, because it was going to be impossible to get a return on investment (for more expensive restaurants)."
Today, with the U.S. economy steadying, restaurateurs are slowly getting back into the $2 million range. Sandoval said the "sweet spot" for financing a restaurant is in the $1 million to $1.4 million scope.
What does it take to open a restaurant? On the endless checklist, location is one detail Sandoval emphasized. He recommended spending time in the area before selecting the brick-and-mortar locale, and getting to know the locals' spending habits and the time of day they go out to eat. Price point also is an essential factor.
"Make sure that what you are doing makes sense for that area -- you have to understand the demographic," he said. "It is very important that you are located in an area that has heavy access to parking and good street visibility."
Sandoval is involved 100 percent in each restaurant opening. From picking the location to testing food and motivating the staff, he is hands on. His father, also a restaurant owner, showed him at a young age that it isn't just about being a good cook. The business is equally important.
His father's restaurant, Madeiras, was an iconic dining establishment in its prime. It was located atop a mountain overseeing the whole bay of Acapulco. Sandoval's father was against his going to culinary school, but his passion for food persisted.
"People always ask me, 'When are you going to stop?' And my response is, 'I'm an entrepreneur, and until the day that I don't enjoy it anymore, and cannot produce a great restaurant anymore and opening restaurants just because people want me to do them, and it isn't in my heart anymore, then I will stop,'" Sandoval said.
Owning and running a restaurant is a 24/7 job he emphasized. It demands many sacrifices, contrary to TV shows glorifying celebrity chefs, he said. Celebrity chefs give many hopeful culinary students a false sense of reality.
Although the food industry has become a lucrative market with plenty of opportunities, it's also a physical industry that Sandoval reminded takes many years to master.
"I recommend that (students) test it out before they fully dive into it. There are a lot of long hours, and when people are vacationing, that's when you are working the hardest," he said. "Be prepared to work, and if your heart's in it, it's one of the most rewarding industries in the sense that you get to connect with a lot of people."